Toronto Fringe: Millennials surviving working & adulting in the lighthearted, satirical Above & Beyond

Seated: Tatyana Mitchell & Natasha Ramondino. Standing: Felix Beauchamp, Rabiya Mansoor, Andrea Irwin & Francis Masaba. Set and costume design by Jules Mendoza. Photo by Angela Sun.

 

JackieTol Productions gives us a lighthearted, satirical look at slogging it out in an office cubicle as two Millennial pals try to survive working and adulting in Jaclyn Toledano’s Above & Beyond, directed by Rebecca Ballarin and running in the Robert Gill Theatre.

BFFs Jamie (Tatyana Mitchell) and Nicole (Natasha Ramondino) are sales reps at Bright Star Tours, a travel agency that specializes in educational tour packages for schools. Former employees of Oyster Tours, Bright Star’s biggest competitor, Jamie is killing it at their new company, while Nicole—who used to also rock—is now struggling. Both are dying of boredom at this dead-end job, but Jamie’s able to play the game; Nicole not so much.

Added to the mix are their warm, technically-challenged boss Tracey (Andrea Irwin), and colleagues Steph the go-getter (Rabiya Mansoor), macho dude Brett (Francis Masaba) and charmer Jared (Felix Beauchamp). We also get a glimpse into Oyster Travel, a larger organization with a more corporate vibe, and their shark-like staff (played variously by Mansoor, Irwin, Beauchamp and Masaba)—who are stunned and perplexed that smaller fish Bright Star is outperforming them. Could it be that former employees Jamie and Nicole are now Bright Star’s secret weapons? And what’s the deal with Tracey’s hard-ass replacement Andrea (also played by Irwin)?

From soul-destroying moments on the job, to presentations, holiday parties and advice on Tinder swiping, anyone who’s worked in a cubicle farm will certainly recognize these characters and workplace situations—and shouts to the cast for their sharply drawn work. Mitchell and Ramondino are nicely matched, with Mitchell’s chill Jamie taking their situation in stride, her friendly out-going nature endearing her to the teachers she pitches to. But being too easy-going can land you in trouble sometimes. Ramondino’s Nicole is reminiscent of Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect; wry-witted and cynical, she’s wondering WTF she’s doing there and if it’s the right place for her—and if she’ll ever get her sales groove back.

Outstanding character work from Irwin, switching from the amiable, supportive boss Tracey, to the sharp corporate Oyster employee, to the scary mean girl boss Andrea and the sweet, protective teacher Helen. Mansoor brings big LOLs as Steph the uber keener; you know the type, and you’re never quite sure if it’s all a put-on or if they’re really that into their job. Masaba also brings the comedy as the office’s bro about town Brett; full of himself and utterly clueless about how he comes across, Brett is clearly enjoying his cruise through work and life. And Beauchamp is adorably charming as Jared, bringing just the right amount of slick to make you wonder if he’s actually a good guy or not.

It’s fun, it’s relatable—and you may find yourself asking if you’re living to work or working to live. And sometimes, it takes a little while to get your work groove back.

Above and Beyond continues at the Robert Gill Theatre to July 13. Check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Mental health takes centre stage in the mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s)

Skipping Stones Theatre gives us a new, contemporary take on the Shakespeare classic brings mental health front and centre with its mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s), directed by Sean O’Brien, supplemented by additional Shakespearian text; and opening last night to a sold out house at b current Studio in Artscape Wychwood Barns. Here, we have a Hamlet who’s literally and figuratively beside himself, played by two actors; a young man struggling with emerging Bipolar I as his world crumbles around him.

I never get tired of seeing how different theatre companies interpret and adapt Hamlet. Opening with “To be or not to be…,” Hamlet’s (Tristan Claxton and Kate McArthur) emerging mental illness is established off the top of Hamlet(s). The double casting turns soliloquies into Hamlet’s conversations with himself; and the effective tag team nature of his dialogue reveals a troubled, fractured mind rolling through manic, mixed and depressive episodes—with McArthur’s side of Hamlet taking on an inner voice quality.

This adaptation also examines the responses of friends and family to a loved one’s mental health crisis. Ophelia (Breanna Maloney) is featured more prominently, taking on a more active role; mindful and concerned about Hamlet’s welfare, she enlists the assistance of Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Liz Der). Conflicted and torn about telling her father Polonius (Mike Vitorovich) about Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and unable to find another way to help him, Ophelia chooses to place her trust in a parent; this makes her subsequent mental breakdown following Polonius’s death—at Hamlet’s hand—all the more heartbreaking. And one can see how and why Horatio would consider taking her own life after all attempts at helping her friend have failed—and those who were supposed to help and care for him have only betrayed or neglected Hamlet.

Claudius (Tim MacLean) and Gertrude (Shalyn McFaul) are also concerned—he out of fear of exposure and losing his ill-gotten throne, and she out of guilt and neglected love—but are after a quick fix for Hamlet’s problem. Enter Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Felix Beauchamp) and Guildenstern (Tamara Freeman), summoned to cheer Hamlet up; but instead of genuinely listening to Hamlet, they offer mere positive spins to counter his intimations of what ails him.

Unable to level off and organize his rapid-fire thoughts and emotions, Hamlet’s in no shape to enact revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Directly responsible for the death of Polonius, and perhaps also feeling responsible for Ophelia’s subsequent breakdown and death, Hamlet eventually faces off with the vengeful Laertes (Erin Eldershaw) in what’s being sold as a friendly fencing match. Surprisingly calm and ready for death—one gets the impression that he may be opting for suicide by vendetta.

Remarkable, gripping, lazer-focused performances from Claxton and McArthur as the dual Hamlets; both revealing a full range of struggling, conflicted emotional and psychological experience—from dejected despair, to playful antics, quixotic exchanges and a-ha flashes of inspiration. It’s raw, real and present—fascinating, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking to watch.

Equally fine work from the rest of the ensemble, with Maloney’s ethereal, loving Ophelia and Der’s sweet, nerdy Horatio clearly the only ones who are truly on Hamlet’s side; desperate to help their friend, they’re both frustrated and baffled as they grasp for a solution. MacLean gives a slick, corporate edge to the pompous, entitled Claudius; and there’s a tinge of melancholy to McFaul’s cool, detached Gertrude. Vitorovich gives us some great comic turns as the intelligent but verbose Polonius and the cheeky, sharp-witted Gravedigger; and Eldershaw offers up compelling performances as the irreverent, fiery Laertes and the divalike First Player. And Beauchamp and Freeman are a great pair as the affable but duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are more concerned about serving at Claudius’s pleasure than they are with helping their friend.

Those who aren’t protective of Hamlet’s health and welfare aren’t necessarily bad people—some are merely self-serving, clueless, in denial or negligent. And even those who strive to truly help find themselves spinning their wheels due to lack of awareness and subsequently missing what resources may be employed to help. Just like real life. A long neglected aspect of our health care system, we’re gradually seeing mental health come to the forefront. More of us are realizing that mental health is health.

Hamlet(s) continues in the b current Studio Theatre until November 24, with performances tonight (November 17) and November 22-24; please note the 7:30pm curtain time. Advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue, with a short run—at the door.

Power, plots & passion in the compelling, intimate & deftly performed Caesar

Kevin Kashani as Marc Antony and Melanie Leon as Julius Caesar in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

 

Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its 2016-17 season of startling, up close and personal theatre with its production of William Shakespeare’s Caesar, directed by Dylan Brenton and opening last night to a packed house in Kensington Hall.

Triumphant Caesar (Melanie Leon) is out of control and turned tyrant, while still managing to maintain support among everyday Romans, who want to crown her as Emperor. Her friend Brutus (Megan Miles) is deeply concerned about the impact her rule could have on Rome, while Cassius (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) goes one step further and hatches a plan to take Caesar out of the equation. Cognizant of her friend Brutus’s popularity, Cassius recruits Brutus, as well as Casca (Felix Beauchamp) and others, to her cause: assassinate Caesar.

Forewarned by a soothsayer of dark portents on the Ides of March, Caesar is reluctant to make her regular trip to the Senate—and wife Calpurnia (Beauchamp) implores her to stay at home. However, her pride and vanity are stroked by one of the conspirators (Kevin Kashani) and she ventures out despite all warnings. And despite Cassius’s warnings to Brutus about Caesar’s favourite Marc Antony (Kashani), Brutus refuses to shed his blood and even allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

After Caesar is killed, Brutus speaks before her fellow Romans to quell mounting fear, confusion and anger—and they are satisfied. That is, until Antony gives that famous speech at Caesar’s funeral and turns the tide of public opinion, sparking a war—with Antony and Caesar’s son Octavius (Beauchamp) on one side and Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on the other. When all appears lost, both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives, with Brutus’s reputation for pure intentions throughout this endeavour remaining intact.

For those of you who’ve seen earlier Wolf Manor productions, the gender fluid casting will be nothing new. Casting female actors in male roles and vice versa provides interesting new takes on familiar characters—and serves as a reminder that women are just as capable of pride, violence and power brokering; and men of tenderness, caution and introspection. The intimate, in the round staging gives a Coliseum feel to the set; we’re witnesses to these events, but we’re also the citizens of Rome. And the running image of the sands of time—pouring out of letters, wine bottles and even Caesar’s blood—hearkening to a sense of legacy and that, whether emperor or everyman, we are all bound for dust.

Brenton has an especially strong and compact cast for this tale of power and might for right. Miles gives Brutus a nice balance between eloquence and strength. Pensive and fair-minded, Brutus is a reluctant leader driven by a firm resolve to do what’s best for Rome, no matter what the cost—even to herself. Vallecchi Williams tempers Cassius’s blunt boldness with a sharp mind and an intuitive insight into men’s hearts. Her finger on the pulse of public sentiment, her plans go well beyond mere schemes and plots. And her love and friendship with Brutus reveal a gentler, emotional side; great chemistry between Miles’ mild-mannered Brutus and Vallecchi Williams’ fiery Cassius.

caesar 1
Foreground: Maddalena Vallecchi Williams & Felix Beauchamp; Background: Megan Miles in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

Leon gives a great turn in two very different roles: the proud, vain and tyrannical Caesar; and Brutus’s fiercely loyal and loving wife Portia, where she plays a lovely two-hander in which Portia, beside herself with worry, begs to know what ails Brutus. Beauchamp also does a marvelous job with multiple roles: as the eerily quiet, menacing Casca; Brutus’s wide-eyed serving boy; Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who relays a dream of dark portents; and the sturdy young Octavius. Kashani does a great job with the many sides of Antony; ready to spill blood after he’s spilled tears over Caesar’s corpse, he proves himself to be a master manipulator of mob mentality during his sly spin on the conspirators during the funeral speech, as well as a fine warrior—and is greatly underestimated by his enemies.

With shouts to the design team for creating the minimalist, evocative environment and atmosphere: Tessa Hallett (set), Nikolas Nikita (costumes) and Elizabeth Elliott (lighting).

Power, plots and passion in the compelling, intimate and deftly performed Caesar.

Caesar continues at Kensington Hall till May 28; full schedule and advance tix available online. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue with limited seating and a very strong company.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

Toronto Fringe: Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous & thought-provoking Persephone

persephone 2A well-known myth gets a new, feminist-inspired perspective at this year’s Toronto Fringe in Pencil Kit Productions’ lush, multi-disciplinary staging of Persephone. Directed by Claren Grosz and created collectively by the company, the show is currently running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

In this version of Persephone’s journey to the Underworld, we are shown several sides of the story – and everyone seems to have a different version. Love-struck Hades (Christopher Sawchyn) makes a request to Zeus (Felix Beauchamp) to arrange a marriage with his daughter Persephone (Sydney Herauf), but clearly no one checked in with her mother Demeter (Jacklyn Francis). Beside herself with worry as she searches for her beloved daughter, Demeter casts the world into winter in protest in an attempt to force Zeus’s hand and get Persephone back. In the end, though, it is Persephone who decides and enacts the terms of her release.

Using movement and dance that is both playful and erotic, as well as music and song – and with a delightful comedic introduction to the tale – the ensemble does a remarkable job with the storytelling. Herauf gives us a fulsome, well-rounded performance as Persephone; going from precocious, curious child to a strong-willed teen who questions authority, to a young woman discovering her own desires and choices as she navigates the decisions that were made for her. Sawchyn is imperious and seductive as Hades; and despite his commanding personality, he’s far more sensitive and accommodating than one would think. A lonely god, he seems to really want to get to know Persephone and cares about her welfare and happiness. This in contrast to Beauchamp’s cocky Zeus, who is decidedly more old-school patriarchy; with a laissez-faire attitude toward fatherhood, his power is absolute – but despite his arrogance, he’s not stupid and knows he must make a compromise with Demeter or the people will perish in the harsh conditions of her imposed winter. Francis is lovely, majestic and nurturing as Demeter (aka Mother Nature); in today’s terms, her parenting style would be called “helicopter,” and her fear for her daughter’s safety, while well-founded, is overly controlling at times. Afraid to let her daughter go and ferocious in her pursuit to get her back – you don’t wanna mess with Mother Nature.

Really nice work from the members of the chorus, who portray multiple characters, including trees and a river. Laura Katherine Hayes give a great turn as Persephone’s irreverent, playful friend and lover Diana; and Augusto Bitter and Fiona Haque do a lovely re-enactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale. Keshia Palm injects some fabulous sass; and Sheree Spencer brings mystery and some beautiful violin music.

With shouts to the design team: Sim Suzer (costume) and Kennedy Brooks (lighting) for their evocative work on this production.

Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous and thought-provoking Persephone.

Persephone continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.